Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 52 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities!
All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
Like most reviewers, I believe that the chief asset of this “war is madness” film is its star Tina Fey. Co-directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and based on The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker, the film is a very episodic account of a female war correspondent coping in a man’s world in an alien land. Also, as mentioned by others, it is similar to Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, but with far less of a bite.
Ms. Fey plays the New York desk-bound Kim who wants to leave behind the humdrumness of her present news job and her going-nowhere relationship with her boyfriend. It is 2003, and with the Afghanistan war winding down and the attention shifting to Iraq, her organization puts out a call for a reporter who is single and with no children to go and replace the veteran reporters being reassigned to Iraq. She jumps at the chance.
For a while it is a fish out of water tale, with an Afghan woman calling the just-arrived reporter “a whore” for being bare-headed. (The interpreter Fahim (Christopher Abbott), assigned to her tells her that the woman said, “Welcome to Kabul.) The green reporter is also chastised by the grizzled Marine General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton) for wearing a bright orange backpack during her first foray as a correspondent embedded with his unit. Tossed a roll of camouflaged duck tape, she covers up the attention-getting sections of her backpack.
In what is called the “Kabubble” she grapples with her relationships to her New Zealand bodyguard (Stephen Peacocke); Fahim, the translator from whom she learns the native swear words that we see her wielding early on; the gorgeously photgenic British reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie); and Scottish freelance photographer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman) with whom she falls in love during the next three years.
Like so many who come under hostile fire, Kim feels the thrill of combat, and when her unit comes under fire, she forsakes all concerns for safety and rushes toward the firefight in order to capture the action on her camcorder. The sequence is picked up and aired by her agency. Her new colleagues are impressed, and so is the General.
As time passes and Kim becomes more experienced, she finds that her sex, which often had been a hindrance in her profession, becomes an asset when she is led into a house where a group of village women dressed in blue burqas await her. Emerging a short time later, Kim tells the General that the village well, blown up and then repaired by the Marines several times, was actually destroyed by the women, and not by jihadi. It seems that they preferred to get water and wash their clothes at the river because that was the only time they could escape from men and socialize together. The General, impressed, tells her that he has already decided not to repair the well anymore.
As her romance with Iain progresses she participants in the “there’s no tomorrow’ life of parties in “Kabubble,” the name given by the journalists to the only place in the country where they escape from the war and live according to their Western values and interests. Through Fahim she gets to interview numerous times the bearded Ali Massoud Sadiq, Minister of Vice and Virtue (Alfred Molina), whom she eventually has to fend off when he wants to make her “a special friend.” Her love for Ian leads to the most prolonged action sequence of the film.
As time passes Kim finds that none of her reportage is being picked up by her agency, so she flies back to New York for a showdown with her superiors. She learns lessons concerning the public’s fickle interest in a no longer exciting war, as well as the media’s willingness to go with the flow, forsaking its duty to educate the public.
Despite the film’s lukewarm reception I find it well worth watching, again transporting us to an alien land which we see through the eyes of a woman as unversed in its ways as we are. Also, I enjoyed Kim’s two-minute meeting with “Jerry,” her superior in New York, because that role is played by my favorite cameo actress, Cherry Jones. Turns out “Jerry” is really Geri, an all too rare female news executive, who brings Kim to face the facts of news and the public. (See my blog on my brief but memorable encounter with Ms. Jones in upstate New York.)
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the May 2016 issue of VP.